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The concept of worker robots is schewing towards humanoid, legged beasts capable
of assuming any human role. However, sometimes a much better result is achieved
if you throw the human model out the window.
KIVA is one such example. This warehouse management robot, looks like many hundreds
of separate little orange boxes. Yet, it is actually all one robot, each orange
box serving like a tentacle, reaching out from the central mass. It is also utterly
revolutionising warehouse work. In the warehouses with KIVA installed, work efficiency
has doubled, and even tripled, over a purely human workforce.
Not to worry thou, this is not a case of robots replacing humans - yet. What it
is a case of is redesigning the warehouse, and having a single faceless robot
worker, compliment the human staff.
The Human Perspective
In a Kiva warehouse, the humans never move from their workstations, which sit
or stand in front of a supply of cardboard boxes, a row of lights above a shelf
for placing boxes on, and a continually moving conveyor belt behind those boxes.
Orders come in, they flash up on one of the light panels above a slot for a cardboard
box. The worker takes a box from flat-pack, folds it out, and places it on the
shelf for that order. They indicate that they have started that order, and within
moments a shelving unit with one of those items on, slides up to them. More shelving
units arrive, stacking up behind it. The human finds the item they are after,
indicated by a flatscreen display, and scan it into a barcode reader. If it's
the wrong item, they are informed its not on the order list - the human can have
up to six orders open at any one time. If it is the right item, a light flashes,
and they are to drop it into the appropriate box.
As soon as the correct item is scanned, the mobile shelf unit moves off, and the
next one behind it in queue, moves forward. When an order is complete, it flashes
rapidly and beeps. The human worker then folds the box flat, labels it - a label
prints out - and pushes the box back onto the moving conveyor belt. A new order
then beeps on the now-emptied slot.
This is why, perhaps, it will be a good thing when the human's job can be roboticised.
Mindless factory work taken to extremes.
The Robot Perspective
A Kiva robotic system, consists of maybe 150-300 separate robot units, and a central
controlling system, all working in perfect harmony. In effect, they are all one.
The warehouse floor is covered with magic symbol AR squares, identical to the
ones used in AR visualisation. They are arranged in a grid pattern covering the
entire floor, at intervals of about half a metre. Each symbol is of course, different,
and is designed to interface with a camera on the underside of each Kiva robot.
The symbols tell the robots where in the warehouse they are.
Each shelf unit, or pallette in the warehouse is designed specifically to fit
the Kivas. Slightly wider than a Kiva, with a gap at the bottom large enough for
a Kiva to scoot under, every unit is on castors, allowing a robot to zoom under,
raise a central screw to lock on, then drive the shelf unit about. This is again
why the magic symbol squares are a set distance apart. If they are used to orient
the robots, so that the robots only turn on the squares, and the robots are the
only things moving the units, no two shelves will ever collide.
Going slightly further, it is possible to reverse a shelf into position in storage
at full speed, knowing there is noting to avoid in that space. Each Kiva unit
additionally has motion sensors, and machine vision cameras on the front, to tell
if a human has stepped into their way, or another obstruction is present.
All of the robots are just waldoes. They interface through Wi-Fi with a central
dispatch system, continually. Each has its own unique IP address, and orders assigned
to that unit. Thus, if there is a blockage, the unit can query if it is another
unit in its way, or a human. If the latter, or neither, it will query central
dispatch and request an alternate route to its destination - dynamically routing
around any blockage.
As a side effect, the robots remember a blockage is there, even if they have not
encountered it themselves. In effect after all, they are all one organism.
Between five and six units are assigned to each human worker. When a worker requires
an item, the central server accesses its records. Every item placed on the storage
units was barcode-scanned, and in the more advanced installations, has passive
RFID as well. Thus, the system knows where the items the human has requested,
are stored, and directs each unit to go get a different item. If there is a conflict
- two units for different workers ordered to get the same item, then the system
knows this ahead of time. If no palette is available for a substitute, the unit
is simply reassigned to get a different item on the human's list, as close to
the original in location, as possible.
Amongst the storage racks, are racks of another nature. Charging alcoves are dotted
about, usually along walls. Some of these are occupied with charging Kivas, others
are empty. When any unit runs low on battery - or is unoccupied - it is routed
towards an alcove, nipped in, and allowed to recharge. If it is a busy period,
another unit is immediately unplugged from charge, reassigned wit the first one's
tasks, and sent about its business. During high activity periods, units will sometimes
be directed to the charging stations simply to cool down. They drive in, lock
with the charging station's interface, and draw no current. They simply power
down. A few minutes later, the charging station powers the unit back up, and waits
for central dispatch to give it orders. Out the unit drives, and in comes another.
At any time, a portion of the units are thus in docking stations, ensuring that
should any problem occur, there are replacement units ready to step in. Other
Kiva units can even step in to guide a malfunctioning unit off the floor, and
take control of its load seamlessly.
If a particular product is found to be in high demand, the human shelf stockers
are advised by the system, to start stocking the unit on the middle shelves of
move of the stacking units - which are delivered to the stockers as they deplete.
These shelve units are then quietly moved to storage locations closer to the human
packers that are calling on them.